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Meet the Fellows: 2017 Newcombe Fellow Daniel Platt

The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship is the nation’s largest and most prestigious award for Ph.D. candidates in the humanities and social sciences addressing questions of ethical and religious values. The 2017 class of Fellows includes Daniel Platt, a doctoral candidate in American studies at Brown University. Mr. Platt recalls some family traditions and lessons that influenced his research:

In my family, we leave little to chance. We trim our nails on Monday or Tuesday——the former for wealth, the latter for health. We always leave a penny or two in our purse or wallet, so that it won’t grow accustomed to emptiness. New Year’s Day brings a range of dietary rituals: pork is in, because pigs root forward; chicken is out, because chickens scratch for their food; vegetables that grow up, like peas and corn, are good; those that grow down, like potatoes and carrots, are bad. These traditions come to us from my grandmother, a child of the Great Depression, and while they were never meant to crowd out other sources of security and well-being, like family, work, education, and politics, they reflect a faith she picked up in her hardscrabble youth and never put down: uncertainty pervades economic life, and one can never have too many guards against misfortune.

My research explores some of the other guards Americans erected between themselves and the volatile market in the period between Reconstruction and the 1930s. I consider how a range of ordinary and elite figures thought about the promise and perils of indebtedness——the most nettlesome of market entanglements——and how they used the law to address those moral concerns. Broadly, I trace the rise of a bright-line regulatory regime rooted in midcentury understandings of slavery and freedom, and I analyze that regime’s wane in the long Progressive Era, as emerging narratives of racial essentialism provided resources for relocating the hazards of debt from market to race. The role of these narratives in helping an influential cohort of reformers to circumvent the conviction shared by 19th-century Americans and my 20th-century grandmother——that chance is ultimately unconquerable——suggests important links between race and market in modern moral and economic culture

Mr. Platt’s dissertation title is Race, Risk, and Financial Capitalism in the United States, 1870-1940. For more information on the 2017 Newcombe Fellows and to see a list of their dissertation titles, click here.


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